I got to hold a baby this week.
One of my dearest friends--a woman who has been a stand-up auntie for my own daughters in a million tiny, creative ways--told me she was pregnant in the before times. I imagined all the ways I would repay her purple-iced cupcakes and last minute school pick-ups and delicious salads and soups. I imagined showing up as soon as she was back from the hospital and swooping the babe out of her arms when she was done nursing so she could drink a jar of water, go to the bathroom, cry on the couch. I wanted to be a soft, unconditionally loving place to land. Mothers need layers of mothers, I’ve learned. Mothers on mothers on mothers on mothers.
But then covid happened and all the sudden I didn’t even get to hug my friend, who was getting bigger and bigger all the time. I would visit her almost daily and sit on the sidewalk while she sat a flight of steps above me on the porch. The best part was that we still got to feel connected. The worst part was that when one of our eyes filled with tears, we couldn’t hug one another. Our eyes filled with tears a lot in those months.
When the birth started, and then got a bit stalled out, my friend’s partner sent up the bat signal and we came over in costumes with instruments and we cheered them on from the sidewalk, making up our own exuberant chant--Go baby go!--while playing kazoos and shaking maracas, all perfectly out of sync. She smiled from the porch, exhausted and quaking, and then went back inside to keep pursuing the strangest, most sacred release there ever was. Ever will be. Next to death, I suppose, though I’ve never experienced that one.
But birth! And then Ida was here--like most newborns, more creature than human. I met her at the now familiar porch-sidewalk distance. I took distanced walks near her mom (my friend was now a mom!) where it took everything in my power not to touch the tiny foot or hand hanging out of the ergo, limp with deep sleep. I knew her first as this creature smooshed against her mom in the ergo, her happy place. All of my own memories of that smooshed symbiosis flooded back. I loved that feeling--my daughters and I taking on the world, sneaking into the back of conferences, strolling through museums and forests, on the move.
I wasn’t the only one who got around with those girls. John, my dude, with my youngest daughter shooting at a high school basketball game.
And then last week, we decided to officially pop the hermetic seal between our two families and become one--share our germs, share our kids, share our lives (inside our homes, not just from awkward distances).
I got to hold the baby.
And this was the strangest thing: as she melted into my arms, as I smelled her little head for the first time, the thought that showed up in my brain--crystal clear--was: Oh, I’ve missed you.
How can you miss holding someone you’ve never technically held? Missing someone is definitionally about having once been near them and then being prevented--by distance or conflict or death--from continuing that intimacy. It is about memory--sensory-rich and synapse-enabled. It is about the longing that comes from familiar touch and the loss of it.
But I had no memory. I had no touch. And yet, my body registered the loss.
I began to wonder if that strange sentence--Oh, I’ve missed you.--was representative of the floating grief that’s all around us these days. This sense that we are missing so much that we never even got to do, missing people that we have never even met, missing a country we have never actually known.
We miss lives we thought we would have had a chance to live into by now. We miss people we never met--strangers and lovers and babies. We miss the variety of touches we would have felt, the ways we would have shown up for one another, would have hugged one another after our eyes became pools of tears. We miss experiences we were going to have and the ways they were going to shape us. We miss that shape of ourselves. We miss so much of who we might have been.
It’s a great humbling, a great loss. And yet there is still hope in it. I look into this baby’s eyes, this country’s eyes, and my next thought is: okay, so who are we going to be now?
*Oh, and friends, a shameless plug for you to order my brother’s new poetry collection, out yesterday, called Things to Do in Hell. I’ve found poetry to be an incredible balm in this time. Have you tried it?
I’m not objective, duh, but a bunch of people who aren’t related to him think it’s really special and they’re right. Here’s what Su Hwang said about it:
“Masterful, breathless, and prescient, Chris Martin’s fourth poetry collection, Things to Do in Hell, is both antidote and screed, reliquary and reckoning. In this diatomic opus exhuming the most intimate aspects of our human[e]-ness, Martin probes capitalism, toxic masculinity, fatherhood, and whiteness to inventory the disasters and desires that have fueled our perilous consumption toward impending collapse. And yet there is hope—for love endures. Retooling language like molten metal—letting its fire snake then seethe into new realms of syntax and meaning—this poet at the height of his powers reimagines a deliberate, unflinching future ensconced in wisdom and tenderness from ‘the circle whose center is everywhere.’ There’s no turning back.”
This is really beautiful. I want someone to put me in an Ergo and take me to a museum...Also, not to Byron Katie you, but also is the "oh I've missed you" directed as well to a version of yourself? I am finding that these days.
Add me to the layers of mothers. I saw the photo and experienced the sensory delight that baby's feet offer. I too miss her.